Mystery on (and off) Television

When "The Returned" separates mystery from procedure, they start to look very different from one another, even antithetical.

By Paul W. GleasonDecember 1, 2015

Mystery on (and off) Television

THE MYSTERIES on television today are almost without exception procedurals. “Mystery” and “procedural” have become synonymous, two words for one genre. If there’s a hint that something is amiss here, it’s only found in a rarity like The Returned, a French show whose second season is now airing on SundanceTV. When The Returned separates mystery from procedure, it reveals them to be very different from one another, maybe even antithetical.

The procedural as a genre includes everything from the old Agatha Christie adaptations on the BBC to today’s slick, souped-up CSI clones. Cop dramas and lawyer dramas and hospital dramas and secret government agent dramas — in our TVs they are legion. And despite their efforts to distinguish themselves with sci-fi twists and ever-kookier detectives, they all work pretty much the same way. Every week our heroes (or antiheroes) carefully accumulate and follow the evidence to its logical conclusion. If a procedural bothers with emotion, it’s usually as “motive,” which is just another kind of evidence, on par with blood spatters or phone logs. And rest assured: the murderer will be discovered within the hour, the crime ring rolled up by the end of the season. Even if, in a daring sort of procedural, the criminals get away, we never doubt who they are, what they’ve done, and how.

Procedurals are equally common in so-called “prestige” television. Even The Wire, ultimately, is a procedural. The complexity of Baltimore may have overwhelmed its underfunded police department but in principle, as one character says, “All the pieces fit.” In a procedural they always do. Every time. The best example of highbrow procedure is the BBC’s Sherlock. On that show Benedict Cumberbatch’s head is a skull-sized CSI laboratory, able to summon and process information immediately and (this is telling) he always figures out what the information means. What makes a procedural is the idea that everything can be known (and will be known) with enough empirical investigation. This is the underlying message of these shows, and they deliver it hundreds of times a week. Get the right combination of brains, technology, and information, and everything can be explained, exhaustively and to our satisfaction. 

What makes a mystery is harder to say. What makes mysteries so rare on TV, and why they occasionally become phenomena (like Lost or, even further back, Twin Peaks) is harder still.

The Returned is the best mystery I’ve seen in years. Twice remade for American television, once pretty faithfully but both times cancelled quickly, it remains virtually unknown. I find that odd because its premise is simple and arresting. In a small mountain town beside an old reservoir, the dead return to life, with no idea they’ve been gone. We never learn why or how (and I’m hoping we won’t, either). 

Even so, the show is never less than enthralling. It leaves behind the procedural’s usual concern with cause and effect and instead submerges us in its gorgeous, haunting atmosphere. The music by the Scottish instrumental group Mogwai is somehow dreamy and industrial at once, while the direction of Moroccan-born Robin Campillo is thematically rich without being intrusive. In the show’s dominant visual motif, two people stand on opposite sides of a barrier (a window, a gauzy curtain, a pillar in the foreground of the shot), and then one crosses it. Obvious as that sounds on the page, on screen it is devastating to see one character after another recognize a lost child or lover, and then walk toward them, or slam and bar the door.

The show focuses on four of “the returned.” There’s Camille, a 15-year-old girl who died when her school bus veered off a mountain road four years prior. Another, Simon, is an absurdly handsome young man who committed suicide on his wedding day. The third is Victor, a little boy who died in a robbery. The last is Serge, a psychopath who killed several women before his brother Toni killed him.[1] The set-up of The Returned inverts the structure of a standard procedural. Instead of beginning with the unexpectedly dead, it begins with the unexpectedly alive. This immediately shifts our focus from forensic questions (How did the victim die? Who did it?) to emotional ones. (How will their families react? When will the returned realize they’re dead? How will they react?)

In the early episodes, characters deny what’s happening or demand answers. On the night of Camille’s return her parents leave the house to argue about her. “There’s an explanation,” insists Camille’s father. “Like what?” her mother replies. “That I’m crazy? That you’re crazy too? You saw her, didn’t you? Look. Look at her!” At this moment Camille, already sensing something wrong, opens a sliding door and steps out into the yard, but her father refuses to look back. The next day while Camille and her parents are silently eating breakfast, Lena, Camille’s now-older identical twin, refuses to play along. “So is this what we’re going to do? Act like everything’s normal?” Her father admits it isn’t, but Lena presses on. “What’s it to her? She just might be a clone or something.” Camille asks “Do you have any idea how it feels to be me?” and “I don’t care,” Lena shouts, “You don’t exist!” 

When Simon returns to his fiancé, Adele, she is living with their child and her new fiancé, Thomas. He rings the doorbell, calls her name loudly as he knocks, and then starts throwing himself against the door. Thinking he’s a hallucination (which she has clearly suffered from before), she pounds on the other side of the door and screams at him to leave her alone. Thomas, however, begins to suspect that Simon is more than a figment of Adele’s imagination and asks the priest about the possibility of bodily resurrection. “You can’t take things so literally,” the priest advises. “I’m a cop, not an intellectual. I need to understand,” says Thomas. When the priest replies that faith requires an acceptance of mystery, Thomas shoots back “My job is revealing mysteries.” At the police station, the police are investigating a stabbing attack that matches a string of killings that stopped suddenly a few years ago. They call in one of their old suspects, Toni, who on hearing the new evidence mutters, “That’s impossible.” It should be, because his brother, the murderer, is supposed to be dead.

Instead of looking for explanations, the returned try to reclaim their former lovers and families. On the day of the crash, Lena, pretended to be sick. She stayed home and had sex with a boy named Frederic, even though she knew Camille was in love with him. In the present Camille pursues Frederic with an affected worldly frankness. Her appearance unnerves the boy, of course, even though she claims to be a cousin from out of town. When the ruse begins to fall apart, he comes to her bedroom. She sits him down on her bed and climbs onto him, as if they are about to have the love scene they should have had years ago. “Who are you?” he asks, obviously afraid. At this moment the camera turns from his face to hers, where we see a fear of a totally different kind. “You know who I am,” she says. “I love you. And you love me, too. That’s all that matters now.” Frederic at last recognizes her. He pushes her aside, stands at the door for a moment, and leaves. Simon fares no better. Although he and Adele do sleep together, she refuses to leave Thomas. When Simon tries to force her, Adele stabs him in the stomach and barricades herself in a closet, while he again pounds on the door, begging to be let in. He is exactly where he started at the beginning of the show. There is no real return for any of them, no chance to do anything differently this time.

All that’s left is to understand why things went wrong before. Both Simon and Adele ask the priest why he [Simon] would kill himself. “It’s natural you want to know,” the priest tells Adele, “but the truth is I have no idea.” None of them do, and none of them will. When Camille finally asks the question she most wants answered, the answer only makes Frederic’s decisions harder to understand. “I was so in love with you. Weren’t you?” she asks. Frederic admits he was, and I don’t think he is lying. I think he honestly doesn’t understand why, when he loved one twin, he chose the other. In the same way, the priest doesn’t understand why, of all the unhappy, depressed people he knows, Simon was the one who ended his own life, at the exact moment it was supposed to be happiest. Over the course of the show, characters move from wanting explanations (How have the dead come back?) to wanting a different kind of understanding (Why wouldn’t you accept my love? Why couldn’t we be happy?), but even these questions go unanswered.

This breakdown of human intelligence (the utter inability to know what we want to know most) is not something often seen on television, and never in a procedural.[2] I suspect that procedurals tap into (and feed) the incredible cultural authority currently enjoyed by a kind of common-sense empiricism. In this line of thought, we might not yet have the information we need, or our biases might lead us to misunderstand it, but the adequacy of empirical evidence (its adequacy to any question asked of it) is never in doubt. If the evidence isn’t yielding satisfying answers, the fault is ours, and further studies are needed. This sort of empiricism is especially prevalent in data-driven political analysis[3] and best-selling books of socio-biology or evolutionary psychology. Treated as data, human thought and behavior turns out to be just as predicable and explicable (and therefore controllable) as Newtonian atoms. These explanations have all the certainty and finality of the crime lab’s DNA test. Get the right investigators, equipment, and data together, and all the seeming mysteries of human life, love, and death will be solved. The Returned suggests otherwise. The central mystery, while undeniably exciting, ultimately opens our eyes to more common mysteries, mysteries so ordinary they were hiding in plain view. Just as there wasn’t an answer to the question of how or why the dead have returned, there isn’t an answer, not a real, satisfying answer, to questions about how someone could kill himself right before his wedding, or why the boy you loved would choose someone else instead of you.

Still, mysteries like The Returned do occasionally become wildly popular. It would be too easy to say that this is because the audience secretly longs for a re-enchanted world, where wonder and mystery resist the cold hard glare of the lab tech. Too easy because audiences by and large demand that the mystery be solved. Real ambiguity (like the famous blackout at the end of The Sopranos) drives viewers into a rage. Consequently shows like The Returned must feel an enormous amount of pressure, from fans and the companies that want to keep those fans happy, to explain the mystery. But why are audiences so upset if the mystery isn’t solved? Admittedly, the explanations often rely on soft-headed mysticism, and narrative closure has its satisfactions, too. But I suspect the discomfort with mystery goes deeper. It may be that mystery is now more unsettling than empirical reductionism. If our heroes are precisely the people who can harness the data and deduce solutions from it, then what would it mean if all their brains and gadgets were inadequate to the task? What would that say about us poor ordinary intellects on the couch? 

I fear the second season of The Returned may be succumbing to the pressure to explain. It begins with the arrival of a new detective-like character, and Camille’s father has a house full of maps and newspaper clippings up on a corkboard. There are even strings linking pictures to places and names. “If you combine the dates and the places you see sectors forming. They’re like portals leading in and out,” he tells Lena. “I think that if I crack this code. I’ll know when and where … Camille will return.” Both the inspector and father regard the mystery as a puzzle, something a new clue will solve, and unfortunately the show’s creator Fabrice Gobert might agree. As he told an interviewer, “We intend to explore the reason of the [return] and of the evolution of dead people and not be disappointing at the end of the series.” But it would be a shame to lose what on television is a rare thought: that our investigations may end in disappointment.

If mysteries can’t be overcome in The Returned, they can be accepted. There’s a moment in the second episode when Adele offers another way to respond to an unanswerable question. When she sees Simon in a library, she walks up to him instead of running away:

Oh boy! You’re so handsome. Just because I’m marrying Thomas doesn’t mean I’ll stop thinking about you. You’re part of my life. I won’t forget you. At one point, of course, I tried. I had to. But I quickly realized I wouldn’t be able to and that I didn’t have to. I know you’re a ghost. I know you don’t really exist. But it doesn’t scare me. You can stay. I won’t ask you to leave any more. It’s wonderful that you’ve come back. Even if it’s only in my head.

Of course, Simon is actually back, but what she’s describing here has nothing to do with the mysterious events (his suicide and reappearance) and everything to do with her disposition toward them. Hers is an attitude of acceptance and even gratitude for a past she can neither escape nor explain. Explanations in procedurals are a form of mastery: they allow the detective not only to solve the case, but also to move on to next week’s case. What is explained can be safely set aside. Adele believes she can live with a mystery rather than pitting herself against it. The Returned is full of moments like this, when characters embrace events (and people) they can’t understand or control. And these moments must resonate with audiences, too. Not everybody who watches and loves a show like The Returned demands an explanation. Some must see, in Adele’s hard-won ability to live with her imponderable life, a reflection of their willingness to live with mysteries of their own.


[1] Admittedly, the “serial killer on the loose” plot is a cliché. But unlike every other serial killer I’ve seen on TV, Serge is neither handsome nor intelligent. He doesn’t quote poetry or philosophy or

listen to Bach. He is pug-faced and creepy without even a hint of allure. More importantly, two of his victims are among the returned. Which is to say that The Returned is far more interested in women’s lives than their deaths. 

[2] The only other TV mystery I’m aware of is The Leftovers. Oddly enough, it deals with the opposite phenomenon: people who disappear for no explicable reason.

[3] Whether it’s the technocrats in Washington DC who want to save us with government policy, or the techno-libertarians of San Francisco who want to save us from government policy, they both believe deeply in the idea that information, properly gathered and analyzed, will solve just about any problem.


Paul W. Gleason is a PhD candidate in the University of Virginia’s Religious Studies department.

LARB Contributor

Paul W. Gleason’s essays and reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Point, and many other publications. He also writes the substack Unfamiliar Letters about his old scholarly interests: American religion, literature, and higher education. More of his writing is available at


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